Heritage vegetable review
Major Cook's Bean   Major Cook's Bean

Age: at least 1950s, but probably older
Background: Named after a British officer who worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the Somme area, rebuilding the WW1 cemeteries in the years following WW2. He gave some seeds to a colleague, Mr "Lucky" Luxton, whose family have been growing and preserving it ever since.
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: robust, prolific, succulent pods, shelled beans have supreme flavour and texture, a genuine all-rounder
Cons: none - this is an absolute gem

It's always heartwarming to grow a variety with a genuine heirloom status. This distinctive bean was most likely bred in a home garden and has been maintained through the dutiful care of one or two families. This kind of remarkable survival is one of the joys of heritage vegetables and a testament to the devotion of gardeners. It's also a reflection of how good this bean is. I can see why it was worth making the effort to keep it going all those years.

 
 
 
   

A while after reviewing this bean I was contacted by Major Cook's son, who told me more about its origins. Major Cook was based in Albert, Somme (northern France) from 1952 to 1971, where he was superintendant for the British war cemeteries across the Somme area, and gardened on a bombed out factory floor. He had originally trained at Kew in 1939 and when the war broke out his first job was to teach people to grow their own food. During his years with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission his right-hand man was Harold "Lucky" Luxton, a WW1 veteran who had survived having four machine-gun bullets in his chest, two of which couldn't be removed as they were too close to his heart - so they stayed in him for his remaining 60 years or so. Major Cook was a keen experimental horticulturalist whose other credits include the "Golden" Leylandii, which he discovered as a natural hybrid growing in one of the cemeteries. He was also from a line of garden innovators; his grandfather was Alderman F. Vokes of Southampton who won over 1100 horticultural prizes, and his uncle Major H. V. Vokes was the first horticultural officer for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission when the cemeteries began to be formalised in 1920. The origin of Major Cook's Bean very possibly goes back to Alderman Vokes.

In its dried seed form, Major Cook's Bean is a pretty bean, though not hugely unusual in appearance. It's somewhat oval, satin-smooth, very slightly below average size, and cream-tan coloured with purple-maroon flecks. Most borlotti type beans have this appearance, with minor variations. So to look at the seed itself, you wouldn't know it was any different from several other varieties. Though it does have a slightly translucent glazed appearance, rather like Victorian porcelain. It also displays the common phenomenon which I call "day for night", where the colours are occasionally reversed (tan flecks on a purple bean). This is part of the bean's natural variability and should not be 'rogued out'.

The plants are climbers, so I grew mine up the bog-standard bamboo wigwam (actually two wigwams with a bar joining them together at the top). But for the first few weeks they didn't climb. The growth remained bushy and compact with no obvious leader shoots and I started to wonder if they'd been mislabelled. But then they suddenly decided to go for it, and went whizzing up the poles with such vigour they were soon flailing beyond the tops. They also filled out with leaves pretty quickly, forming a solid wall of beanery.

The leaves are fairly large, with pronounced stipules. It's not a pretty or genteel plant in this respect ... the leaves are quite coarse and primitive-looking and rough to the touch. The surface of the leaf is lightly blistered. French beans normally produce their leaves in groups of three, but Major Cook's frequently produces composites with four or five leaves. The flowers are mauve and quite pretty ... fairly average for a french bean.

Photo: Dried beans, as supplied by the Heritage Seed Library.   Major Cook's Bean

The plants have a very sturdy constitution and were completely unfazed by the ravages of the weather, coping with alternate droughts and deluges and ferociously buffeting winds. Completely trouble free and untouched by pests, the plants remained in immaculate condition right through what turned out to be an awful summer. It's certainly one of the most robust and hardy varieties I've grown ... very well adapted to the UK climate.

At a young stage, the pods are a bit unconventional-looking to say the least. The beans start to swell at a very early stage so even the very young pods are knobbly, and the curvaceous shape is very pronounced, almost C-shaped. They're a light bright green in colour but very quickly start to develop purple-blue streaks. These streaks gradually darken and intensify, becoming more maroon. A few of the pods end up pretty much a solid dark maroon by the time they reach maturity, but most are predominantly purple with the green showing through from underneath. The C-shape tends to open up into a milder curve as the pods mature.

     

At all stages of their development, the pods are very colourful. As with other varieties the streaks are made from the water-soluble plant pigment anthocyanin and don't survive the cooking process, so the cooked pods turn a dark green (and turn the cooking water a weird dark blue-green). Anthocyanin is an antioxidant with great health benefits, so don't be afraid to use the weird-coloured water as stock for gravy. The pods are smooth and exceptionally thick-walled. Lumps and bumps don't affect their quality as edible-podded beans. The beans inside are smaller than they look, it's the thickness of the pod wall that makes them appear so lumpy.

I was amazed how good they tasted. The flavour is full and rich and sweet, and the texture gorgeously succulent and juicy. The surface texture is smooth with no trace of roughness. This really is what green beans should be like, but very rarely are. And as a great bonus, they are absolutely stringless. Some might find the flavour a bit on the strong side, but it's a good hearty old-fashioned flavour.

  Major Cook's Bean pods
     

Shelled out fresh and cooked in a casserole, it's difficult to describe how good the flavour and texture is except to say that they are "just right". They taste rich but not overpoweringly beany. The texture is silky soft with a buttery melt-in-the-mouth delicacy, and not at all mushy or squishy. No trace of the mealiness I would often associate with a shelling bean of this vintage. It stays intact when cooked, the skin being robust enough to avoid bursting but fine enough not to impair the eating quality.

Photo: Immature beans. I wouldn't recommend harvesting them this young as a general rule, you don't want to waste the pods while they're still edible. The larger ones which are just starting to go pink around the hilum are about right, as the pods have started to go pithy when they reach this stage.

If you're going to shell them out to eat fresh, it's worth leaving them until they're mature. With some beans you can shell them out when they're still small, but with Major Cook's this is counterproductive.

  Major Cook's Bean fresh
     

Even when it looks like the beans are getting big (from the size of the bulges in the pod) they are actually quite small and most of the bulge is down to the thick succulent flesh of the pod itself. To throw away the pods when they're this succulent is a waste. So to get the most out of this variety, you'll want to either catch the whole pods while they're still young or leave them until they reach full size and start to change colour to a deep maroon, at which point the beans will have absorbed most of the succulence from the pods and be a good size for eating. The juicy flesh of the pod turns to a whitish pith at this stage, similar to what you get in broad bean pods. They don't have a fibrous membrane like most french beans.

Despite the thick wall of foliage produced, and the atrocious weather which pelted the plants with rain almost non-stop throughout August, I had no problems at all with mould or spoilage of the pods, even where they were densely packed together. There were also no problems with beans splitting their skins, although with so much rain I would have expected this to happen (and it did with most other varieties).

Mature beans shelled out fresh have an attractive pink and white appearance, with the occasional solid pink, before drying down to the conventional maroon-and-tan.

Major Cook's Bean is a genuine multi-purpose bean, which is actually quite a rare thing. Most french beans are optimised either for eating the pods as "green beans" or for shelling out the actual beans (fresh or dried) when mature. Shelling types are generally too stringy and fibrous to make good green beans, and green beans are generally a pain to shell out because they're too fleshy and not fibrous enough. Not so with this one though.

Some care needs to be taken when saving Major Cook's for seed, because the exceptionally succulent pods are slow to dry out, and may become rotten or mouldy if they're not sufficiently ventilated. I found spreading them out and turning them regularly avoided these problems.

Is there any disadvantage or negative point with this bean then? No. It's wonderful. I think I might be growing this one for the rest of my life. My thanks to Major Cook and to those who cared for this bean for so long and were generous enough to donate it to the Heritage Seed Library for the benefit of others.

  Major Cook's Bean pods
     
   

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Text and images © Rebsie Fairholm. All rights reserved.